Web of lies

Age of the Geek Column: The cinematic Spider-Man may not be feeling so good, but in the video game world the wall-crawler is swinging high.

Insomniac's much anticipated Spider-Man game released last week to nearly universal acclaim, setting a new bar in the industry for open-world super hero titles.

However, there is always going to be a nit to pick. As launch day approached a minor controversy spawned over, of all things, the size of water puddles in the game's environment. For a game that proudly displayed high fidelity reflections in its 2017 reveal trailer, eagle eyed gamers quickly noticed a reduction of water in later gameplay videos and theorized that it indicated a drop in graphics quality between the initial trailer and the final product. Even as Insomniac proclaimed that no reduction had taken place, gamers scoured screenshots and video clips for other signs that the game's graphic fidelity had taken a hit for the sake of performance.

Ultimately the verdict seems to have come out in Insomniac's favor. An in-depth examination by Digital Foundry concluded that, if anything, the final build of the game was more technically capable than the E3 2017 demonstration. And yes, it is kind of crazy that somebody had to perform what is essentially virtual forensics on a video game trailer to put the controversy to rest, but it's never been said that the gaming community isn't a detail oriented bunch.

So yes, in this case, gamers were making an ocean out of a puddle. But to be fair, their suspicions were valid. "Puddlegate" is merely the latest chapter in an ongoing controversy over how video games are marketed.

Oftentimes the first look of a game comes in the form of a "vertical slice." A demonstration built specifically to showcase the best that a game potentially has to offer. Developers looking to wow audiences (and investors) will often put extreme amounts of effort into trailers and demos for games that may be years away from completion.

Sometimes these vertical slices do their job a little too well, setting up expectations for a level of graphical fidelity that developers can't meet when it comes time to release the game to the masses. "Aliens: Colonial Marines" infamously flopped for a number of reasons (one of which being an easily fixed typo in the game code that all but crippled enemy AI), but one of the core complaints of the game centered around the fact that the final product looked noticeably different than the demo that had been shown. And not in a good way.

"Aliens: Colonial Marines" is far from the only offender either. Video games across the spectrum, from the critically panned "Watchdogs" to the award winning "The Witcher 3" have faced criticism for not looking as good as they did in their tradeshow builds.

In fairness, these early builds often come with the disclaimer warning that the build is not representative of the final product, but that statement even has somewhat misleading connotations.

A movie trailer, for instance, never has better special effects than the movie it's promoting. If the trailer for the next Star Wars movie shows the Millennium Falcon flying through a CGI asteroid field, there's little chance that scene in the theatrical release will be replaced by a toy suspended by fishing line as somebody off-camera throws small rocks into frame and makes whooshing noises.

Likewise, the art in the sample pages of an upcoming comic book are unlikely to be replaced by a five year old's crayon drawings in the final publication.

This is a conundrum that is somewhat unique to the gaming industry.

In any other medium, things generally only get better over time. There is an intuitive assumption that if you show off a demonstration of something early in development, that product will only ever improve as it nears completion.

In gaming however, the reverse can often be true. Game demos can be built around high-end PC graphics cards and only need to look good in a relatively limited scope of situations over the course of a couple minutes. The final product, on the other hand, needs to look good in a large variety of situations over the course of several hours, and do it on less powerful machines.

This raises the question about the ethics of making a demo that you know may look more impressive than you can actually offer. Consumers may accept that a Big Mac will never look as appetizing as it does in a McDonald's commercial, but when it comes to a $60 video game there is less tolerance for the bait-and-switch.

At the same time, this puts developers in a tough position. It's hard to build hype for a game when you only showcase your most conservative estimate of what the final product may look like. Game development is a long and complicated process. If you aren't making a vertical slice that approximates the potential of the finished product, then your only alternative is to show off a bug-ridden development build that isn't going to get anybody excited.

And as "Marvel's Spider-Man" has shown, even if you hit your target, some people will still cry foul.

There's got to be a middle-ground between truth-in-advertising and setting reasonable expectations.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and is lucky he doesn't have to promote himself with his rough drafts.